"Southerners, the Color Line, and Sex," The
Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 June 2002
From the issue dated June 28, 2002
by Nell Irvin Painter
Writings by black Southerners in the late 19th and early
20th centuries focus far less obsessively on sexuality than do the works
of their white contemporaries, because whites were less able than blacks
to face up to the consequences of unsanctioned sexual desire. The telling
difference has to do with secrecy, for a lot of white people were keeping
secrets from themselves in ways black people simply could not. Because
people of mixed race were classified as Negroes, African-Americans lived
with the literal consequences of patriarchy and racism.
The children of rape or other forms of sex across the
color line became black Southerners' own children, parents, grandparents,
uncles, and aunts. Harriet Jacobs, for instance, the North Carolinian
author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), hesitated before
exposing her intimate history but ultimately took it into print. For the
great majority of white people, however, interracial sex remained a strange
kind of secret: a secret as big as the elephant in the living room. ...
Considering the potency of secrets, I would not be surprised if 21st-century
historians discovered that black women, having been the most obscured
people in Southern history, hold the keys to that history.
-- Nell Irvin Painter, professor of American history at
Princeton University, in Southern History Across the Color Line,
published by University of North Carolina Press
Reproduced from The Chronicle of Higher Education,
28 June 2002. Copyright Nell Irvin Painter.
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